Parenting During the Pandemic
SARAH SELTZER: 37, Lilith’s digital editor and mom of two.
I’m in NYC with a baby and toddler at home and little childcare help; my partner is a recent cancer survivor so we’re cautious. Like so many working moms, my job is more flexible (and provides less income) than my male partner’s, so my work overflows into lunch breaks, early mornings, naps, weekends and after bedtime. But it gets done.
When the weather is good, a two-hour trip to a park with some social-distance visiting is the day’s highlight. When we’re stuck at home? Tears, yelling, and messes.
Every day, I track Covid statistics on my phone. Early on in the pandemic, when our own New York was suffering gravely, I had my husband change my Twitter password so I would stop obsessing. I slept better. I hated that I slept better.
The tiny pleasures and stolen cups of coffee that kept me sane as a working parent of little kids are totally out of reach. Here comes the disclaimer (and we all do this) that I am one of the lucky ones, and being with my kids has its blessings, too. But as my quiet text threads with other friends who are similarly “lucky” reveal that we all feel a sense of drowning, and fear. The headlines bear this out: “Single Mothers Hit Hard.” “Real Life Horror Stories from Pandemic Motherhood.” “Pandemic Could Scar a Generation of Working Mothers.” The substance of these pieces? Women, especially women of color, single moms, and working moms, are bearing the brunt of the economic and social fallout: double burdens at home, discrimination at work if work exists, the twin terrors of anti-Black state violence and disease, a generation set back on the path to equality.
I’ve asked some women Lilith knows (but who don’t know each other) to talk about how this feels right now. Let’s dive in. Where are you all quarantining? What is your day like? What do you miss? Anything you’re OK with giving up?
TAMAR FOX: 36, a writer and editor who does not bake sourdough bread, but does obsess about houseplants.
I’m in Philadelphia with my five-year-old back in daycare, and it feels incredible. My partner and I both worked from home before Covid, but when it hit, we spent three months passing our child back and forth, counting the minutes until her afternoon screentime. My 12-year-old stepdaughter was going back and forth between us and her mom, doing schoolwork, understandably bored and frustrated. I spent every minute feeling intense guilt about what I wasn’t doing: being an attentive parent, focusing on work, getting dinner on the table before 8 PM.
We have childcare now, but school is starting again, and it’s going to be virtual. How do you do kindergarten online? We will likely join one of those “pods” that everyone is talking about, though I’m also worried about how to do this in a way that doesn’t reinforce segregation and divert resources from schools, as some have argued they will. Yet there is no possible way for me to teach my child and do my job at the same time. Every family I know is inventing its own plan, and I’m so full of rage I feel on the brink of screaming.
In the “before times,” every Shabbat we would go to a playground near our house. All our friends would be there, and for sometimes four hours or more we would just hang out–the kids yo-yoing back and forth from the slides to the spiderweb to the parents with the snacks. It is cheesy, but I just yearn to do that again. I miss sitting around for hours at a time and not worrying about dying of a virus.
ARIELLE DERBY: an elementary school principal and the 41-year-old mother of “two amazing kids.” She lives in Silver Spring, MD.
I’m a single mom. I have an eight-year-old son I share custody of with my ex-wife, and I had a baby on my own in November. He’ll soon be a year old, which I cannot believe. I’m a school principal, and since we went virtual on March 13 I feel like I have not stopped to breathe. Trying to run a school for other people’s kids and a school for my own (same school, but different experience, of course) and a daycare and a household all from our one-bedroom apartment was a constant succession of Big Feelings, most of them bad.
I’m good in a crisis. I felt grateful to be employed, to have (some) money to throw at our problems—like being able to pay to have groceries delivered, to have friends and family to Zoom with and reliable internet and devices for everyone. I thought we were doing pretty well, despite everything. But things started to fall apart for me around the end of May, when I realized this wasn’t a crisis. It was life.
On July 6 our daycare opened for infants again and I started sending the baby. It was amazing. He went for a week and two days and then a staff member got sick, and they shut down for three days. It wasn’t a teacher who worked with infants, but it was sobering. Following that the baby ran a low fever for two days, which caused me to get us all tested…negative.
My older son had a hard time with Zoom school. We talk a lot about feelings, and he said recently, “Everything is just so crappy now that when little things happen it just makes it even more crappy.” (He’s inherited my potty mouth.) He’s also thoughtful and sweet and funny and has spent more time playing Minecraft and watching Minecraft YouTubers in the past months than I care to admit. I am terrified about what the new school year will be like for him.
What do I long for? Not worrying about the trauma this is inflicting on my kid and all my students. Being able to buy groceries without its being A Production. Hanging out with colleagues in my office after school. Going out for coffee. Not feeling like every single fucking decision is life or death.
I started using Facebook like a public journal when this all started. I posted every day and tried to focus on the little moments of joy. My neighbors’ gardens blooming, my kids giggling. I know I am lucky. And yet. And still.
KATIE COLT: a writer, musician, and parent in the Chicago area.
I live in the suburbs with my husband and two kids. My daily life is centered around making sure the kids have what they need. Most of the domestic labor falls on me, as my husband has had to go into work from Day One of the pandemic (he’s a brewing production manager at a nationally distributed brewery).
Our five-year-old, a delightful and boisterous boy, is a “mover” (he physically cannot sit still) and is suspected to be ASD. Remote learning for his pre-K class was a disaster, and I am dreading our district’s remote-for-everyone plan, even though it’s safest. With my two-year-old, I’ve been trying to give him extra attention to help with his speech delay, but most of the time I just end up the referee between the kids. I’m worried that the younger one is missing out on socialization time, and that his speech delay is a result of being isolated. I feel like a failure because I can’t split myself into two people that can simultaneously give each child 100% of me.
On top of this, all I want to do is be alone. In April, I lost my dad to Covid. I’ve barely been able to get space to myself to grieve. Before this all happened, I was looking forward to sending the five-year-old to full-time kindergarten and the two-year-old to daycare a couple of days a week so I could spend time creating: writing and making art and music. I fear I will lose myself completely if I cannot figure out how to do this.
CHAVA SHERVINGTON: a longtime diversity activist in the Jewish community, as well as an attorney and mom in Los Angeles.
I’m a mother of two living on the West Coast with my husband and two daughters (four and six). I’m managing most household responsibilities, a house renovation, and am on the leadership team of an organization with a focus on racial equity work in the Jewish community. I’m on a hamster wheel: my husband is an essential worker, my kids are old enough to need real education and entertainment but not old enough to manage it themselves, and my professional responsibilities have exploded because of the new attention to racial justice.
My day cycles through conference calls, webinars, interior design, and refereeing household arguments. As an incredibly social person, I’m struggling with the fact that my circle has disappeared. Instead of conferences, social gatherings, smachot, and our warm shul and school community, I’m home with most of my in-person communication relegated to explaining for the 1000th time that, yes, my kids have to clean up their room even though they’re “still playing with it.”
An extreme extrovert, I am starved for adult interaction, leading me to spend more time on social media than I’d prefer to. I try to assuage my guilt with the fact that it does assist me in building relationships with my fellow Jews of color, but it also leads me to disappointment in the larger community as well, especially some responses to the movement for racial justice.
My kids are rotating between Zoom, the longest running game of house in history, and constantly anticipating the things they’re going to do when this gets better. Baruch Hashem they’ve adjusted to their new normal, but it was fraught with early behavioral regressions, chutzpah and clinginess combined with frustration that Mommy being home doesn’t always mean that Mommy’s available. My general 80s approach to parenting seems to be paying off, as my kids can entertain themselves for hours with dolls, books, and art…with only a few mishaps. I’m impressed with how resilient they’ve been and how much they’ve been willing to sacrifice until “after the virus.”
I feel like I’m creating infinite extensions on when that actually is, when they’ll be able to play with friends, return to shul, visit cousins and grandparents who live plane rides away. But I am inspired by their generosity of spirit and willingness to take this in stride. One thing I’ve learned so far is that there are lessons all around us, if only we’re willing to pay attention.
All the best,
AUTUMN LEONARD: a mother of two who leads workshops and conversations for parents and kids about race.
Hello new thought partners. It’s lovely to be sharing ideas. My family has been quarantined in our fourth-floor walk-up apartment in Brooklyn for the centuries that have passed since March 16: the day NYC schools closed. My son turned seven two days before the closing. The pictures from his slumber party look so forbidden now, like we were fiddling on the Titanic as it sank. That was before wearing masks was supposed to be important. All of my work quickly dried up. I teach yoga and do facilitation and anti-oppression coaching. Once the yoga studios closed I had to wait and see if they would go online, and once they went online, I had to wait and see if they would invite me to be on the roster. Meanwhile my husband’s job exploded. He co-directs a parenting organization, and every single person on staff besides my husband is a working momma. My husband was the only person on his staff who had a partner who was no longer working full time, so I experienced more pressure to take care of the kids in order to free my husband up to backstop all those other mommas he works with. It was a masterclass on how I put unnecessary pressure on myself. I waded into remote learning while my husband worked up to 70 hours/week.
Remote learning was a slow-motion disaster for my first grader. He did not want to be seen on Zoom calls. I bribed my kids with chocolate to run laps up and down our hallway and stairwell. I kept taking videos of my youngest in apoplectic tears and then talking myself out of sending them to our teachers.
Here’s what I know about my emotional state: Dissociation is my superpower, I often feel fine in an emergency while knowing that in a few months or years I will have panic and anxiety and not know why. It’s like taking out an emotional loan against my future. So when this first began that’s what I did. I stayed very calm. It was an adventure. We would figure it out.
I have been teaching yoga via Zoom from my living room, or from my bedroom (with the bed flipped up against the wall), or even sneaking up onto the roof of my apartment. I have been holding space for other people while embracing how much I could not feel myself. There is a generation of kids whose entire lives will never be the same (they are calling them Generation C for Covid and/or Change). There are so many families who have been decimated.
Then George Floyd was murdered, the uprisings began, and suddenly I was absolutely incapable of pretending everything was fine anymore. So now I have become a stay-at-home momma, who intermittently teaches yoga from every room except the bathroom, who stayed indoors for most of three months—and then took her kids out to protest in the middle of a pandemic. While I have handled the pandemic of racism my whole life, I couldn’t handle the twin pandemics of racism and Covid and just stay safe.
I do appreciate hearing your stories, and at the same time it’s like a horror novel I don’t want to read.
Autumn, your words resonated with me. As an educator and a parent, I cannot stop thinking about the long- and short-term effects this will have on our kids. What lessons are they learning? God, I hope I am modeling and teaching resilience, gratitude, flexibility, strength…in my mind I am pretty much hiding in bed all the time.
What are our kids learning about who and what is valued in America? What will it mean for them to see and process that the grown ups can’t fix it? Can’t fully protect them? We are all affected, and at the same time my skin, my class status, my resources change the level and nature of my affectedness. Perhaps that is one thing for the “silver lining” list—having to think about and confront my privilege and what it means, the abundance of gratitude that comes with those realizations, the spur to action as a necessary response to those realizations.
Arielle, this sentiment really resonated with me. What I am doing and where I am in my head are usually two completely different processes, as if I am split in two, each piece located on separate continents. When my five-year-old was a baby, I was struggling with postpartum depression and anxiety, and I was telling my mother about the terrible thoughts in my head while I was nuzzling him and feeding him. “You may be thinking of terrible things, but you’re not doing terrible things,” she said. If reassuring my kids while I quake in fear is considered “lying,” like one men’s magazine article described it, well, I’m nearly pathological. Everyday I’m full of dread and believe it MUST be leaking out somewhere, yet my kids ask to put their masks on the moment I open their car doors to unbuckle their little seatbelts. If anything, this makes me feel a little triumphant, this normalization of pandemic life. Because ultimately we have lost, but we are here.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how ineffective communities in today’s world can be at providing basic care for each other. In my neighborhood, I’m lucky to know several neighbors on my block, but we watch each other struggle with grief and loss, with working from home, with lack of childcare, and we say very little about it.
Because, somehow, the privilege we share has sent us our own independent islands, all lined up neatly in a row, and no one knows how to swim or wants to learn. Anyway, maybe that’s what the future, post-pandemic looks like to me: social contracts of reciprocity. I’m ready to jump in the water and discover how to float.
Katie, so much of what you wrote I could have written myself. I don’t know if I would classify it as “lying” but I feel responsible for minimizing my children’s anxiety, sadness, and fear. I think there’s a distinct difference between avoiding and denying current realities, and helping children manage difficult circumstances. Given how isolating, depressing, and fear-inducing Covid, the continuing police brutality and rhetorical backlash around the current civil rights movement, and the economic downturn can be for adults, I have made specific choices around how we discuss these issues around them. I’m constantly questioning whether I’m making the right decisions about what we do and don’t discuss, but I’m hoping that I’m instilling core values around equity, justice, and communal responsibility.
And I miss my village! This pandemic has exposed the lack of governmental and societal support for women and children, how structural racism exacerbates that lack of support, and even for those in privileged circumstances demonstrates how necessary a village is. It’s also raised so many questions that society must reckon with in a serious way as we come out of this pandemic. Going back to “normal’ is not an option. This moment has exposed how normal is not working for so many of us. The new mommy wars around pods or no pods, remote learning vs. in person learning are only a reflection of the disparities that already exist.
Those of us who profess to value equity need to re-evaluate how we engage with institutions. As I see businesses who refuse to take cash, I think of all the folks with no credit or no bank accounts who are now prevented from accessing resources.
How much are we willing to sacrifice because of inadequate childcare options, how do we ensure that kids with food insecurity have proper access to nutritional meals, are employer expectations based in efficiency or in patriarchy, how do our personal relationships need to be reevaluated so that women aren’t overburdened? What are the many ways that this pandemic has more widely exposed racial disparities in health care, education, wealth, job opportunities, how many folks have been thrown into an economic tailspin due to a societal crisis? How do we build systems of resilience that don’t rely on exploitation?
One of my biggest fears is that this moment will pass, these questions will get pushed aside and pushed off until our next moment of crisis.
My grandmother was an undertaker, firmly a member of the black upper-middle class in her town of Flint, Michigan. When I was a kid, everyone there knew my grandmother. She ran a funeral and undertaking business. I was seven the first time I saw a dead body in her basement. Since then I never lost the realization that death was something that could happen to any of us at any time. It has changed the way I live my life, because if you keep in mind that one day you will die it changes your idea of what is important. It has made me think a lot about how adulting is just playing an elaborate game. Some folks make up the rules to the game, and the rest of us try to win. When you look at life that way, rather than being fixed, everything seems adjustable.
The strange thing for me about Covid is that suddenly large sections of society are not ignoring mortality and the fact we can change the rules of society when necessary. Here in NYC, we could pause paying rent and mortgages for those at risk of homelessness. It’s in our power to keep people from being forced out into the streets during a pandemic. When survival is on the line, we rethink what is necessary.
I have had conversations with my 97-year-old grandfather (Jewish, not Black) about how he’s satisfied with the life he has led. I cannot imagine him saying this to me pre-Covid. I cannot imagine discussing it with my kids. But I have been discussing these things with my kids. “No matter what happens to Poppa, he will be satisfied. He is not worried.” We have no control over what happens at Poppa’s retirement home and they are all locked down there, no visitors, and anytime someone tests positive all the residents cannot leave their rooms. So suddenly we are talking to Poppa more than ever. My kids may know their greatgrandfather better than they might’ve. I think because of these discussions my kids are avid social distancers. We do not sugarcoat or ignore or pretend that anything other than our lives or someone else’s life is in the balance.
Recently we went to what we thought would be a distanced playdate and the other girls ran and hugged each other. They then turned to my eleven-year-old and tried to shame her into hugging them. My kiddo said “You have to respect my boundaries.” Until then I didn’t know just how determined she could be.
And yet I would give back knowing my daughter has a core of steel and my grandfather is at peace in a heartbeat if it meant we were not living through what we are living through.
For years I’ve been saying that the old folk tale It Could Always Be Worse is basically the story of my life, and should be printed on my headstone. As a foster parent, I do sometimes add people to my house and it always does make me feel like I’ve lost my mind, and when it’s over I always do feel this intense peace that I’m able to be there for kids that need a safe space. That has been a big piece of Covid times for me. Feeling overwhelmed and stressed and livid, and also grateful.
I worry for my friends who don’t have partners or kids. My best friend is a frontline doctor in New York. After months of excruciating work, he suddenly had to put his dog down last week, and my heart is breaking for him. I have caught myself wishing I had some alone time to watch all the Netflix, and sleep uninterrupted and keep the house cleanish for more than 5 minutes. But having people (and pets and plants) to take care of has also kept me from descending into madness.
One of the weirdest parts of all of this has been figuring out how to be there for friends experiencing loss (deaths, but also miscarriages, cancer diagnoses, job loss, etc) when I can’t give them hugs, or easily make them meals, or help with childcare. I keep thinking about how much I needed my friends when my mom died, and when we had new babies. It sucks to not be able to do the things for others that helped me. My old standards are pretty useless now. I’m doing text check-ins. Sending postcards to friends every week. But it doesn’t feel like enough.
It’s 5.30 am and I’m nursing my baby as the sun rises: so in the new normal, office hours have begun. As Autumn and Arielle have said, the revelations and insights I may have gained because of this mass suffering—I was schlepping way too much “before,” focused on providing for my kids (Pumped breastmilk! Dinner!) rather than just being with them—are valuable, yes, but not valuable enough.
Autumn, I also broke my quarantine to walk in a BLM protest with my kids, and my partner has been doing an intensive antiracist curriculum with our oldest, but I yearn to do more that’s physical: to make marching and organizing a part of my rhythm as I used to do during Occupy Wall Street, during various feminist uprisings, and earlier, during protests of the Bush era.
One of the things I struggled with as a new mom in the Trump era is that my body isn’t mine to use spontaneously. It is the center of a small ecosystem. But sometimes I wear a teargas- proof bandanna from Occupy as my Covid mask, to remind myself that protest movements always return, that, as my mother and Lilith colleagues remind me, the period of life with young children is finite, even short, and that someday I may be marching along with my kids, celebrating victories with my kids, being taught how to be in intimate spaces with other people again by them, and with them.
And now to try to get an hour of sleep before the day begins, again.